Are We Eating Microplastics?

( – Plastics are a serious environmental problem. With many polymers taking years or even centuries to break down, they’re finding their way into our rivers and oceans in alarming quantities. Now Japanese researchers have found tiny plastic particles in rain clouds. Are they even getting into the food we eat? The answer is yes.

In August, scientists from Tokyo’s Waseda University reported that samples taken from clouds around Japan’s highest mountains contain tiny particles of plastic, suspended in their water vapor. That water vapor will then fall as rain — landing in the water sources we drink from, the crops we eat and the pastures livestock feeds on. This means the food we eat also contains microplastics. As the report says, microplastics could be “contaminating nearly everything we eat and drink via ‘plastic rainfall.’”

The Japanese study isn’t an outlier, either. A month earlier, Indian researchers collected rainwater in Patna, a city in Bihar state; they found tiny particles of nine different plastics in the samples, including polyethylene and polypropylene. Analysis of air movements suggested some of these particles originated near Patna, but others had already traveled long distances.

It’s possible these tiny pieces of plastic — officially microplastics are fragments less than a fifth of an inch long, but many are much smaller — were carried into the clouds as water evaporated from the oceans. Scientists are worried about the quantity of plastic in seawater; estimates of the amount of microplastics in the oceans run as high as 236,000 metric tons.

As many fish are filter feeders that strain out plankton from the water, they’ll be ingesting plastic particles at the same time. That plastic will then work its way to the food chain and into our seafood. Plastic-laden rain will do the same thing with crops and livestock. The Japanese report says this contamination is already showing up in human bodies. Right now nobody’s really sure what health effects that has, but it’s not likely to be doing us any good.

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